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Entre civitas y madīna

Sabine Panzram
Laurent Callegarin

From Polis to Madīna revisited: Some Reflections Thirty Years On

Hugh Nigel Kennedy

Texte intégral

  • 1 Kennedy, 1985.
  • 2 Id., 2006.

1Thirty years ago I published an article called «From Polis to Madina»1 and, some two decades later, its younger sister «From Shahristan to Medina»2. In these articles I attempted to provide a new model of the ways in which the ancient city was transformed after the coming of Islamic rule. «Shahristan to Medina» dealt, as the title would suggest with changes in the Iranian world, «From Polis to Madina» with changes in the late Roman/Byzantine areas. It is the second which forms to subject of this brief paper but I shall also draw on some of the ideas offered in «Shahristan to Medina» to examine broader trends.

2In «From Polis to Madina» tried to challenge the generally held view that the Arab conquests marked the end of the flourishing cities of the Roman world and a descent into tribalism and desolation. I did this in three main ways, by pointing out that the classical city had already been radically altered by the events of the mid-third and early fourth centuries, the collapse of urban self-government and institutions and the coming of Christianity. Both of these affected the monumental aspect of the city but not necessarily its underlying prosperity. Secondly that the process of urban decay was a product of the second half of the 6th century and a result of plague and invasion and thirdly that the 1st century of Islamic rule was, if anything a period of urban revival with the development of new commercial and industrial centres.

3It was a model which argued that the processes of urban change were gradual, that economic and social changes were more important than political events. It also argued that the abandonment and decay of the great monuments of classical urbanism was not necessarily a sign of urban decay but rather of reconfiguration an adaptation of urban space in response to new economic and societal needs.

  • 3 Walmsley, 2007.
  • 4 Avni, 2014.

4The argument has been widely accepted in the thirty years since «From Polis to Madina» was published and has been used by such important surveys as Walmsley’s Early Islamic Syria3 and Avni’s The Byzantine Islamic transition in Palestine4.

5I am very grateful to the organizers of this conference for the opportunity to revisit «From Polis to Madina» and see how it has stood the test of time. A conference paper does not allow me to present the argument in systematic detail, but I hope the following reflections will be of some interest.

  • 5 Kraeling, 1938.
  • 6 Tchalenko, 1953-1958.

6One of the main things that strikes me rereading «From Polis to Madina» is the very limited evidence base I had at my disposal. This is especially true of the published archaeological record. I relied heavily on Kraeling’s work on Gerasa5, which, apart from Crowfoot’s excellent chapter on the churches, was essentially concerned with the classical city, and Sauvaget’s brilliant but flawed (in terms of the chronology) discussion on Aleppo and Damascus. Both of these date from the 1930s. For smaller rural towns I depended heavily on Tchalenko’s Villages Antiques de la Syrie du Nord of 19536. For other urban sites like Caesarea and Apamea, I used preliminary reports which have long since been superseded while for the development of the Umayyad suq in Palmyra, such an important piece of evidence, I could only make use of the oral description given to me in conversation by Michel Gawlikowski.

7 So what are the new data and problematics which have appeared to change or modify my 1985 suggestions? I want to approach this question from two directions. In the first I will look at recent archaeological investigations and publications in the area of the ex-Byzantine Near East and see to what extent these have changed the picture I presented. The impact of new studies has been twofold. The first is to confirm and expand on the existing material. The second, and more exciting, has been to look at the history of the cities of the area after the coming of Abbasid rule. «From Polis to Madina» effectively stopped at the end of the Umayyad period. Having argued that at least some cities throve in the Umayyad century, I left the period from 750 to the coming of the Franks in 1097 on one side. This of course was very short sighted because the subsequent history of these cities is not only important in its own right, but also puts the developments of the 1st century of Islamic rule in different perspective. If the history of the cities of the Levant from antiquity to Islam was comparatively little studied in 1985, the history and archaeology of the period which followed was almost totally unknown.

8Transcending the limitations of period in «From Polis to Madina» is one way in which the study has progressed. The second, and perhaps more important is the question of why some cities grew and expanded in the early Islamic period, what were the defining factors in encouraging urban expansion. To answer this question I want to discuss the creation of demand in the economy and the role of state structures in generating this demand. This leads to a sort of New Institutional Economics approach which I will turn to in the second half of this paper.

  • 7 In this, I am excluding sites in the Syrian Jazira, notably Ḥiṣn Maslāma/Madīnat al-Fār and the Ḫāb (...)

9Let us turn first to the new archaeological evidence from the Levant and the way in which it has impacted on my arguments. The scope of this paper is much too small to do full justice to the mass of recent work and I can only point to some of the more important results and in this I am relying on Avni’s recent magisterial presentation of the evidence from Palestine. This means, of course, that by far the largest part of this material comes from the southern section of the region. While archaeological investigation has moved ahead in a convincing and illuminating way in the southern Levant, Israel and Jordan, this cannot be said of the northern sections within the boundaries of Syria and Lebanon and the tragic political developments in Syria have no made it almost impossible to imagine the resumption of archaeological activity. Apart from the important surveys of the Middle Euphrates and Ḫābūr river valleys, which are largely concerned with rural settlement, only the excavations at Palmyra (Tadmur) and the further publications on Apamea, have contributed much to the debate about cities7.

  • 8 Tsafrir, Foerster, 1997.
  • 9 Shereshevski, 1991.
  • 10 Tate, 1992.
  • 11 Walmsley, 2007.
  • 12 Avni, 2014.

10The excavations at Apamea and even more Caesarea have been published much more fully which allows us to plot change and evolution in a way which was hardly possible in 1985. Perhaps the single most influential site report in this discussion was Tsafrir and Foerster’s 1997 publication on Scythopolis-Bet Shean8, which is so important for our understanding of the evolution of the late antique city. New structures have been uncovered by excavation, like the Umayyad mosque in Gerasa and new sorts of evidence like the Petra church papyri. Shereshevski’s discussion of the Negev gave an overview of the urban archaeology of this area which had not been available before9 and Tate’s work on the settlements in the Limestone Massif of northern Syria put urban development there in a new context10. And now there are important new syntheses like Walmsley’s Early Islamic Syria11 and Avni’s The Byzantine-Islamic Transition in Palestine12 with its comprehensive assessment of recent archaeological evidence.

  • 13 Ibid., pp. 40-106.
  • 14 Ibid., pp. 109-159.
  • 15 Ibid., pp. 159-190.

11In what ways have these new publications reflected on or changed the arguments advanced in «From Polis to Madina»? In his recent discussion Avni deals with the fates of a selection cities in the light of the most recent archaeological evidence, all of them of course, in Palestine. I shall look at some of the examples he has chosen and reflect on their implications for «From Polis to Madina». In chapter 213 he examines three urban sites, Caesarea Maritima, Scythopolis and Tiberias, looking at the archaeological and textual evidence, including interesting discussions of the rural and agricultural hinterlands, while in Chapter 3 we have a more extended discussion of Jerusalem14 and Ramla15.

12 The new evidence in many ways confirms the arguments made in «From Polis to Madina». Nowhere does the archaeological record show a catastrophic decline in urban activity which can be directly linked to the Arab-Muslim conquests. There are no clear destruction levels or signs of extensive burning. Instead in all cases we can see a pattern of much more gradual change from the 6th century onwards. But there is an important new aspect that Avni’s work highlights. As noted above, «From Polis to Madina» essentially stopped at the end of the Umayyad period: the thrust of the argument was to assert continuity from late antique to early Islamic urban forms. The new work examines the fate of the cities through to the 11th century with some comments on the Frankish presence in the early 12th.

  • 16 Ibid., pp. 41-58.

13In the case of Caesarea16, the picture which emerges from excavations is deeply ambiguous, some scholars suggesting that there was widespread abandonment, especially in the south built up area which began before and continued through the Muslim conquests (Patrich) while for others (Magness) there is evidence for continued urban vitality and even of modest urban growth. All agree that the late 7th century saw a decline in population, the abandonment of the system of public aqueducts in favour of individual cisterns and the collapse of the great octagonal church as a result of the 749 earthquake. Avni argues that this decline was connected with removal of the centre of provincial government to the newly founded Ramla in the early 8th century. Nonetheless, Caesarea still enjoyed a modest prosperity as a local centre, a prosperity reflected in the accounts of al-Muqaddasī (c. 965) and Nāṣir Ḫusraw (1047) as well as the archaeological evidence of manufacturing activity as reflected in the hoards of bronze objects. Caesarea seems to have enjoyed increased wealth in the late ninth and early 10th century, reflected in new building and paving. Though Avni simply notes this, I would connect it with the emergence of Tulunid and later Fatimid rule in Egypt. Both of these regimes attempted to control Palestine and parts of Syria by using sea transport and constructing navies. This resulted in increased prosperity in port cities like Caesarea and Acre (not discussed in any detail by Avni).

  • 17 Ibid., pp. 59-71.

14The picture from Scythopolis17 is slightly different from the one in Caesarea. This is partly a reflection of the pattern of archaeological investigation. In Scythopolis this has largely been confined to the top of the ancient tell and the monumental centre in the valley beneath. The residential areas on the surrounding slopes have hardly been investigated. The excavations show a pattern of reduced activity in the second half of the 6th century, some development in the Umayyad period, notably the building of a new sūq by the local governor, dated by a mosaic inscription. The 749 earthquake wrought massive destruction in the city centre, powerfully illustrated by the fallen colonnades. The rebuilding after the earthquake was, in this sector, on a much reduced scale and the monumental natures of the city was lost. This graphic picture of devastation is not, however, the whole story. In effect the city centre and the focus of habitation shifted from the valley to the plateau to the south where rescue excavations have uncovered a number of new dwellings and a mosque was constructed, dated by inscription to 794-5 during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Hārūn al-Rašīd. Another new residential area was built on the top of the ancient tell. The evidence of the geographers suggests that Baysan, as it was now called, was a quietly prosperous market town through the tenth and eleventh centuries.

  • 18 Ibid., pp. 71-93.

15The story at Tiberias18 is significantly different from that of Scythopolis. After the Muslim conquest the seat of the local government of the ğund of Urdunn was established at Tiberias and Scythopolis lost the administrative functions previously centred in the city. The result was that Tiberias enjoyed a period of urban expansion in the first three centuries if Islamic rule. The city walls were extended to the south, adding a significant new area to the urban agglomeration. New residential areas were also developed over the classical theatre which overlooked the city and the lake from the West. A large congregational mosque was built. The Umayyad period also saw the development of luxurious estates around Tiberias and its lake. At the south end lay Sinnabra, at some periods the winter capital of the caliphate, while to the north was Ḫirbat al-Minya whose extensive ruins clearly show its status as an elite residence. The success of Tiberias during these centuries must be ascribed to its administrative function, bringing in tax revenues and paying soldiers and bureaucrats. In the 11th century this position changed dramatically. Many of the houses seem to have been abandoned in some haste and hoards of coins and other valuables, like the celebrated collection of bronze household objects. What was the threat which led the inhabitants to bury their valuables and never return to recover them? Here I think we must look to the political history of the time. The first half of the 11th century was a period of increasing Bedouin raids in the area, especially by the newly powerful Banū Ṭayy’. In the end these raids were halted by the Fatimid general Anūštakīn al-Dizbirī at the battle of Uqḥuwāna in 1042 but it was a near run thing. Uqḥuwāna lies at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, only a few kilometres from Tiberias. It is reasonable to suggest that the hasty abandonment of the possessions was connected with this threat. But there is also a more long term change underway. As has already been pointed out, the Fatimids exercised control over Palestine by sea routes. This led to the increased prosperity of ports like Caesarea and Acre and perhaps contributed to the decline of inland Tiberias at the same time. Certainly the Crusader city of the 12th century, though one of the most important lordships in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was only a fraction of the size of the early Islamic urban area, a small fortified enclave at the northern end of the previously inhabited area.

  • 19 Ibid., pp. 93-96.

16Another interesting example is the city of Gerasa/Ğaraš19. When I wrote «From Polis to Madina» in the early 1980s, Gerasa was the best excavated and published urban environment in the Levant but most of the archaeological work was concerned to recover the classical city. Since the 1980s renewed excavation has revealed much about the housing and religious architecture of the city in the early Islamic period. Most significant has been the discovery of a congregational mosque in the heart of the commercial centre, with newly constructed shops alongside. While the court of the great temple of Artemis and the nearby northern theatre as well as the hippodrome to the south, were converted to commercial and industrial uses, the churches of the city seem to have been undamaged and continued in use until at least the 8th century. Recent work, then, has reinforced the picture of urban evolution and continuity I took from the reports of the 1930s excavations. However, in marked contrast to the story in Tiberias and Caesarea, there is very little evidence of continued growth or even restoration after the end of the 8th century and the town seems to have lost its urban character, not to be revived until the 20th century.

  • 20 Ibid., pp. 109-159.

17Jerusalem20 was always sui generis among the cities of the area. Its position as the centre of the two most potent faiths of antiquity mean that it was the focus of pilgrimage and international travel and was endowed with many more monumental buildings that such a comparatively small city, far from major international trade routes, could have been expected to boast. The 6th century saw the climax of Christian religious building with construction of Justinian’s great Nea church, fragments of which have recently been recovered by archaeologists. The two cardines which ran through the walled city were encroached on in late antiquity in a way in which they were elsewhere in the area but they continued to be used for trade, as indeed they still are today in large measure. Neither the Persian conquest of 614 or the Muslim conquest of 638 seem to have led to much immediate destruction. The Umayyad century saw a massive new investment in monumental building. This, of course, included the Dome of the Rock and the first Aqsa mosque but also the series of palatial buildings outside the southwest corner of the al-Ḥaram al-šarīf. Nor did foreign investment in Christian buildings cease either. In a document called the Commemoratorium prepared for Charlemagne in 808 the churches of the city and the number of the clergy are laid out and there is evidence that imperial funds were provided to support them.

  • 21 Ibid., p. 158.

18The early Abbasids continued to invest in the Muslim holy buildings and both the caliphs al-Mahdī and al-Ma’mūn provided funds. However the later ninth and tenth centuries seem to have been a period of economic stagnation and urban decay, the Umayyad palaces being occupied by domestic houses and the Nea church, which had existed at the time of the Commemoratorium was reduced to ruins. It is estimated that the population declined from between 50 and 70 thousand in late antiquity to perhaps 20,000 when Nāṣir Ḫusraw visited21. Nonetheless, great powers continued to invest in the holy places. The Fatimid rulers reconstructed the Aqsa mosque with carved beams and mosaics and the destruction (or at least partial destruction) of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the orders of al-Ḥakīm in 1008 was followed by rebuilding with funds provided by the Byzantine Emperor. In 1033 the Fatimid caliph al-Ẓāhir ordered the reconstruction of the city walls after an earthquake, though the perimeter seems to have been reduced in the south. The development of Jerusalem as a Muslim city must have attracted pilgrims and pilgrimage from the Frankish west picked up again in the 11th century. All this mean that Jerusalem retained its urban aspect, its new and redesigned monumental religious buildings, its market streets and its city walls throughout the early Middle Ages. Along with Damascus and Aleppo, it is one of the three cities of Syria where the ancient street pattern still visibly underlies the modern plan of the urban centre.

  • 22 Ibid., pp. 159-190.

19Ramla22 again has a different trajectory from the other cities discussed here. The city had no antique predecessor, although the ancient city of Lod/Lydda lay close by. The early Islamic history of Ramla is well-known. It was founded in 715 by Sulaymān b. ‘Abd al-Malik, later caliph, and became the capital of the ğund of Filasṭīn. While it began as a political centre, it seems as if it also enjoyed lasting prosperity as the centre of a thriving textile industry. The 11th century saw earthquake damage and the city was in a state of decline when the Franks arrived. Extensive archaeological work in the city has revealed traces of a grid layout of the streets and also, interestingly, an extensive water supply system based on a newly built aqueduct bringing water from a spring some 12 km away. At a time when the aqueducts of Caesarea were falling into disuse, it is interesting to see that in the nearby political capital at Ramla, authorities were devoting resources to the construction of new water installations.

20The survey of the five cities discussed here, admittedly only a sample of the numerous sites discussed by Avni, suggests very different patterns of evolution from survival and expansion in some cases, to decline and impoverishment in others. In all cases, however, the 11th century seems to have represented the nadir of urban activity. A simple comparison, perhaps superficial and simplistic, suggests that political importance and urban efflorescence were closely liked. Those cities with a role as local capitals in the Islamic political scheme thrived, those who had no such role gradually lost their urban character.

21In the second half of this short paper, I will argue that a new factor, not really discussed in «From Polis to Madina», is demand in the economy. It is fair to say that historians of post-classical economies put a great deal of emphasis on supply-side economics, who makes what and where, but much less on demand-side, who orders and pays for these goods a services and where their money comes from. If towns are surviving and even thriving, there must be a demand for urban goods and services, money to spend in the sūq֊s and shops. By the same token, if towns fall into decay and lose their urban aspect, as, say Gerasa seems to have done in the ninth and tenth centuries, then part of the explanation must lie in the absence of demand for town based goods and services.

  • 23 For further discussion, Kennedy, 2002; Id., 2011.

22I would argue that the early Islamic state generated such demand by its political and, even more, its fiscal structures. Alone among the successor states to the Roman Empire, the Islamic world maintained a system of public taxation. When the Muslim armies conquered Iraq and other areas, they did not divide up the land among themselves or enter into hospitalitas agreements with the local populations. Instead, on the decision of the caliph ‘Umar I (634-44) and his successors they were settled in military towns and paid cash salaries on a regular basis with resources taken, largely, from the proceeds of a general land tax. This created a salaried class with money to spend on food and, increasingly, on discretionary purchases, fine textiles, glass and ceramics and by the 9th century, if not before, books and luxuries imported from the Indian Ocean basin23.

  • 24 On this and its implications for urban continuity, see the paper by C. Fenwick in this volume.

23It can be argued that the urban development we witness in many area of the early Islamic world was a direct product of the system. Even in areas remote from the centre like North Africa, soldiers and bureaucrats were paid money, and they spent it24. To make this argument, I shall bring in evidence from beyond the areas of the Levant discussed in «From Polis to Madina» and look at material from the wider Islamic world.

  • 25 Qaṭī‘a land holding was a system by which unproductive land was granted in what was in effect absol (...)

24Let us start by examining what sort of urban expansion we can see in the early Islamic period which might give some substance to the picture of urban expansion and development I am talking about. Most obviously we see this in the development of the Islamic new towns on the 1st century and a half of Islamic rule. The examples of Kufa and Basra in Iraq, Fustat in Egypt and Qayrawan in Tunisia are well-known. Perhaps less familiar but still important are the new towns of Shiraz in Fars and Mosul in Iraq, both of which emerge around the beginning of the 8th century. The siting and early development of these new urban centres were the result of political imperatives rather than economic pressures. Kufa and Basra were developed as bases and garrison towns for the Arab tribesmen who had performed their emigration, their hiğra, to settle in the newly conquered lands of Iraq. The siting of Basra is particularly revealing in this respect. At first glance it might seem obvious that the city was founded to profit from the trade of the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. However, a closer examination suggests that this was not the case, or at least not the primary reason for the siting of the new miṣr. The city was not on the site of later medieval and modern Basra, on the shores of the Šaṭṭ al-‘arab with its easy links to the maritime networks of the Gulf and points east, a replacement of the old port city of Ubulla. Instead it was established on a gravelly, waterless plain some 15 kilometres from the river in an area where, as far as we can tell, there had been no previous urban settlement. The reasons for doing this were determined by the political imperatives of establishing a base with ample room for expansion and good access to the deserts of north-east Arabia where most of the new settlers originated. It was also important that the land had few if any existing inhabitants. This in turn meant that the land could be built on and brought under cultivation and treated as qatī‘a25 land which effectively belonged to the new inhabitants and, as newly developed land, attracted the lower ‘ušr rate of taxation. On the negative side, it also required very large expenditure on digging of canals to provide irrigation, transport and, most importantly, drinking water for the inhabitants. The imperatives were not commercial. There is no indication that the «control of trade routes» beloved of some historians played any part in the thinking of the early Islamic authorities.

25I have highlighted the distinctive features of the location of Basra because we are comparatively well informed about it but many of these features can be seen in the founding of other towns, Kufa, again on the desert margins of Iraq and Qayrawan, well away from the coast which had been the location of the pre-Islamic trading city of Carthage.

  • 26 Ibnawqal, Kitāb ṣūrat al-arḍ, pp. 260-299.

26The early development of Shiraz offers another interesting paradigm. The province of Fars was not short of old and important cities. Istakhr had been the earliest base of the Sasanian dynasty, Gur/Firuzabad had been founded by the first Sasanian king, Ardashir, and Bishapur by the second, Shapur, Darabjird and Arrajan were also ancient cities. When Istakhri came to describe what was probably his native province in the early 10th century26, he notes that all these towns were capitals of sub-provinces and administrative centres in their own right, with, I may cases, their own weights and measures and tax structures. However the sulṭān was established in Shiraz and it was here that the diwans were kept. It was not, however, the capital of its own sub-province: at this level Fars retained the administrative divisions which had been established under the Sasanian kings, or possibly before that. When the author known as Ibn al-Balḫī described Fars in the next century, these local provincial capitals had lost their importance and were in many cases in ruins. Shiraz was now the only major city in inland Fars.

27Fars was not the only province where the early Islamic period saw a consolidation of urban activity around the capital city. As I noted in «Shahristan to Medina», we see an example of this in Isfahan where we can see that the present old (that is pre-Safavid) city was based on the existing city of Yahudiya. Before the Islamic conquest, however, Yahudiya had simply been one of a number of cities, including the other urban nucleus in the oasis at Jayy. By the end of the 10th century, these other settlements had lost their urban aspect and had become villages or at best small towns. Jayy was essentially deserted.

28Bukhara provides another example. Here we see the consolidation of power in the city of Bukhara at the expense of other urban centres like Romitan and Varakhsha which had previously been just as important. Some archaeological evidence points to the same process of centralisation in Muslim Armenia where the city of Dvin/Dabil expanded at the expense of other settlements in the surrounding plain.

29Finally we can turn to the evidence of the Levantine towns discussed in the first half of this paper. In this area, as has been noted, it was the cities which continued to be the centres of local government, Jerusalem with is special status, Ramla and Tiberias, capital of the local ğund-s, which throve while other cities, Jerash, Amman and Baysan lost their urban aspect. The coming of Tulunid and even more Fatimid rule, with its use of sea ports like Acre and Caesarea, led to the revival of the fortunes of these cities.

30 All this points to a pattern which has already been noted. The widespread nature of this phenomenon invites us to look for common causative factors. The first point that seems obvious is that all the towns which developed and prospered, were centres of provincial administration. Istakhri’s account makes this beautifully clear. Other towns in Fars were ancient and lay in the middle of fertile agricultural lands. They produced their own distinctive textiles and fruits which were exported throughout the Muslim world. However, neither their respected antiquity not their evident prosperity was enough to ensure their continuity through the disturbances of the early part of the 11th century and the establishment of Seljuq rule. Only Shiraz, the seat of the provincial governor and his dīwān-s was able to do this.

  • 27 Before the 11th century, the term sulṭān is used in the Arabic sources to mean «the authorities» or (...)

31So far so clear: the centres of administrative power were also the centres which best maintained their urban aspects. But this does not entirely account for the phenomenon we have been observing. What is the connection between political and administrative division and urban growth? Or, to put it another way, how does the fact that the sulṭān27 was based in a city contribute to its urban prosperity?

  • 28 Ibnawqal, Kitāb ṣūrat al-arḍ, p. 289.

32To answer this, we have to look at the question of demand in the economy. This a question which I hardly dealt with in «From Polis to Madina» or «Shahristan to Medina», but which now seems to me to be of central importance in the understand of early Islamic urbanism. Demand was generated in part directly by the court of the local ruler or governor himself. They purchased goods, above all textiles, partly for their own use (Istakhri notes the distinctive robes worn by the servants of the sulṭān)28 and, perhaps more importantly, as gifts and robes of honour, a practice which led to textiles becoming virtually a second currency. These textiles are often described, in the Arabic sources and in modern literature as ṭirāz. It is often assumed that these were ‘government workshops’ in which workers were employed to produce goods for the sulṭān at the sulṭān’s orders. It is far from clear, however, that is was the case, especially in the early Islamic period. It seems more likely that the ṭirāz textiles were produced in what were essentially privately owned and managed ateliers which produced materials to the order, and perhaps to the specification of the sultan. Clearly and importantly from the point of view of the present enquiry, this meant that the textile industry, both state workshops (if they existed) and private entrepreneurs, would locate to the provincial capital because that was where the demand was.

33But of course, it was not just the sultan in the person of the governor, who spent money on textiles. There were also the people employed by the sultan, the kuttāb (secretaries) who worked in the dīwān-s, the servants who washed up and scrubbed out, but above all the military, whose salaries devoured so much of the revenue of the state. All of these generated demands for goods and services, ranging from the supply of daily bread up to imported ceramics and glass and this in turn meant merchants came to the cities to service this demand and they in turn created further demand. As the centuries passed, many of these towns developed economies which were no longer entirely or even partially dependant on court patronage and spending power. They had acquired a sustainable economic life of their own but that should not disguise the fact that their origins can be traced back to a political decision in the first place.

34The relationship between the political institutions of the early Islam state can be seen at another level. The question of taxation of trade and urban activities more general in the period before the 10th century is not well understood. In contrast to the mass of detail and legal discussion about the taxation of crops and agricultural land we find in the harāğ books and works like Ibn Sallām’s Kitāb al-amwāl (Book of Property) we find almost nothing about commerce. Instead we have to make do with occasional references in chronicles and geographical texts. It is possible that they present a very partial picture and that some major dues and taxes are not mentioned at all, but the position seems to be that people often paid rents for urban properties, including shops in the suqs, but that there were no taxes on transactions and no regular customs dues within the Muslim world. This may seem counter-intuitive, after all most governments in most ages have sought to benefit from trade by taxing the movement of goods or the value of transactions but in the absence of any clear information, we must suggest that there is no real evidence for this.

35 The sulṭān did collect ground rents, usually called mustaġallāt on properties which were developed as markets or sūq-s. Accounts of the foundation of Baghdad, of which more later, show the caliph giving areas to his favoured supporters so that they can develop them as markets and receive the ground rents. The famous mosaic inscription about the building of the market in Scythopolis/ Baysan by the governor of the city on the Caliph’s orders, shows clearly the active involvement of the ruler in the construction of commercial premises and it is probable, though not stated, that he would receive the income of the rents the traders paid. Further evidence can be found in an anecdote in ῾Arīb b. Sa῾d’s annals of the reign of the caliph al-Muqtadir (908-32). This story tells how the caliph’s predecessor, his brother al-Muktafī (902-8) had ordered the construction of a new market building in Baghdad. This was on what had been an open area in which poor people had come to spread out their goods and produce for sale, at no charge. Now with the building of this new market, they were obliged to pay and the sultan acquired a substantial income from it. When the new caliph took the throne, the people who had previously traded there appealed to him, saying that the new market building was injurious to the poor Muslims. Al-Muqtadir, then ordered that it be destroyed and that the area could again be used by the poor traders. Of course this story is not intended to illustrate the economic resources of the state but the piety of the new ruler who was prepared to forgo the no doubt welcome revenue (the caliphate at this time was increasingly beset by financial problems) out of compassion for the poor Muslims.

  • 29 Ibid., p. 353, mentions a marṣad at the city of Ḥūnah on the borders of the provinces of Azerbayjan (...)

36There are indications that the position was beginning to change in the second half of the 10th century after the effective breakup of the Abbasid administration. The geographers talk about marāṣid on the routes from Azerbayjan and Armenia to Rayy and the East where, it would seem, levies were taken from travellers29. In the late 10th century the Buyid emirs attempted to introduce a sales tax but this was met with vigorous and violent resistance, which suggests that this was an innovation. In the end a compromise was reached where tax was levied on the sale of silk (silk of course was held to be un-Islamic by the stricter jurists so the measure could be justified on religious grounds). More general sales taxes, often described as mukūs (sing. maks) were often criticised in later years as being contrary to true religion and rulers who wished to cultivate an image of piety, or who simply wished to win the favour of the townspeople, often pledged to abolish them. Such promises were usually short lived. The fiscal pressures were such that so profitable and easy a source of income could not really be neglected.

37In conclusion, I would argue that recent archaeological publications and filled in and elaborated the arguments put forward in «From Polis to Madina» but have not, in the main, challenged my general conclusions. However the argument has moved on. The history of the cities of the southern Levant in the post 750 era can now be explored and used to shed further light on urban developments. In addition, the understanding of the role of government in generating economic activity means that we can go beyond simply describing which towns flourished and which failed in the early Islamic period, to analysing why different towns enjoyed different outcomes. There is still much to be explored and discussed in this area and many more fascinating avenues of research to pursue. It would be nice to imagine that I will report back again in thirty years from now.


1 Kennedy, 1985.

2 Id., 2006.

3 Walmsley, 2007.

4 Avni, 2014.

5 Kraeling, 1938.

6 Tchalenko, 1953-1958.

7 In this, I am excluding sites in the Syrian Jazira, notably Ḥiṣn Maslāma/Madīnat al-Fār and the Ḫābūr river valley.

8 Tsafrir, Foerster, 1997.

9 Shereshevski, 1991.

10 Tate, 1992.

11 Walmsley, 2007.

12 Avni, 2014.

13 Ibid., pp. 40-106.

14 Ibid., pp. 109-159.

15 Ibid., pp. 159-190.

16 Ibid., pp. 41-58.

17 Ibid., pp. 59-71.

18 Ibid., pp. 71-93.

19 Ibid., pp. 93-96.

20 Ibid., pp. 109-159.

21 Ibid., p. 158.

22 Ibid., pp. 159-190.

23 For further discussion, Kennedy, 2002; Id., 2011.

24 On this and its implications for urban continuity, see the paper by C. Fenwick in this volume.

25 Qaṭī‘a land holding was a system by which unproductive land was granted in what was in effect absolute ownership to those who brought it under cultivation.

26 Ibnawqal, Kitāb ṣūrat al-arḍ, pp. 260-299.

27 Before the 11th century, the term sulṭān is used in the Arabic sources to mean «the authorities» or «the government». It is only after that that it becomes the title of individual rulers.

28 Ibnawqal, Kitāb ṣūrat al-arḍ, p. 289.

29 Ibid., p. 353, mentions a marṣad at the city of Ḥūnah on the borders of the provinces of Azerbayjan and Rayy «and the dues (lawāzim) on slaves (raqīq), pack animals and trade goods like sheep and cattle. The sum collected from this tax posts is always 100,000 dinars which can increase to 1,000,000 dirhams, more or less, per year».


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